China’s play for supremacy in Eurasia revives an old geopolitical vision

China plys its trade in Europe. EPA/Wojciech Pacewicz

Much has been made of China’s assertiveness in its maritime sphere of influence, most notably in the light of its hotly contested claims in the South China Sea. But the rest of the world seems to have only recently started to notice the scale of what China is doing on land.

China’s engagement with the rest of Asia and the wider world has come to light in the form of the initiative known as One Belt One Road (一带一路), a broad economic, diplomatic and infrastructural programme designed to transform the way China deals with its Asian neighbours – and with the world beyond.

This programme recently hit the shores of Britain with the arrival of a Chinese freight train, fittingly named the East Wind, at Barking, which carried Chinese goods for Western markets all the way from Yiwu. It seems that half a century after he outlined it, Mao’s vision of “the east wind prevailing over the west wind” is finally coming into view.

But while the impetus for the project is largely economic, there is another more strategic dimension that has yet to be tapped into. China’s geopolitical manoeuvring on land is grounded in the great power politics of the previous century, which have lately made a comeback in Asia. The Kremlin, for one, is philosopher Aleksandr Dugin’s vision for Russia-centric “Eurasianism”. With the Trump administration apparently flirting with a form of isolationism and international uncertainty reaching new heights, this initiative has only become more imperative for Beijing.

In language alluding to the old Silk Road that once connected east and west, the purpose of One Belt One Road is to connect Chinese trade with European markets via rail and maritime links, the latter known as the maritime silk road.

The sheer scale of this project can be seen as an expression of Beijing’s global aspirations, which Chinese premier Xi Jinping underlined in a striking defence of globalisation at the 2017 Davos summit in Switzerland. Alongside recent developments – most notably the US’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership – China has an opportunity to return to the role that it once occupied in Asia and also for the wider world. In doing so, it’s reviving an idea that once dominated the power politics of the 20th century: the contest for influence in Eurasia.

Go west

Throughout the 20th century, the idea of Eurasia dominated geopolitical strategy. During the Cold War, the region was often the focus of the superpowers’ attention, as epitomised by Zbigniew Brzezinski’s The Grand Chessboard, which advocated American management of the region in order to prevent a potential challenger from emerging. Traditionally, this notion was largely bound up with Russia and the Soviet Union, but ever since the latter collapsed, China has been more and more active in its former sphere.

Land rivals: Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. EPA/Ernesto Arias

In this sense, China has fully joined the ranks of the other would-be masters of Eurasia, a clutch of states who depend on land routes over sea routes. This was first noted at the turn of the 20th century by the British academic and politician Halford J Mackinder in a paper titled The Geographical Pivot of History. Mackinder warned the imperial British leadership that it was too dependent on sea routes in the face of rail, which in turn enhanced the power of land-focused powers such as Germany and Russia, the latter of which was where the Eurasian heartland. Both powers posed a threat to British hegemony.

Mackinder’s analysis influenced both German and American strategists for much of the 20th century: the Nazis developed their policy of “Lebensraum” (living space) for the Germans in the east, while US foreign policy spent much of the Cold War working to contain the Soviet Union in its sphere of influence. Those eras have passed, but Makinder’s views live on in today’s Chinese power plays.

In keeping with Mackinder’s theories, the Chinese are now developing rail routes to take strategic pressure off maritime routes, a crucial step in the face of the South China Sea crisis. Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has threatened to blockade Chinese trade routes if its activities in the sea go too far; extensive rail routes to the west are an excellent way to render any such tactics moot.

In a more political sense, the steady extension of One Belt One Road promotes China as the supreme power guarding global free trade against the US’s isolationism and protectionism. The rhetoric of China’s golden age is back, and the country’s goals more ambitious than ever.